Blowing (Away) Bubbles


We all live in a bubble to some extent. Some people live in there with their family and friends, some with their life partner and some with their cell-phone. Humans, being born with free will, do exercise it with surprising agility. With such a pronounced tendency to categorise ourselves as a species; black, white, rich, poor, fat, slim, smart, dumb; it begs the question why people make such a big deal about the “expat bubble”.

The term is very common, referring to foreigners living in a country who only make friends with each other and rarely come out of their comfort zone to explore local culture. Usually, the expats who move to a new country choose to live in overpriced, expat-majority compound close to international schools and other facilities.

This is, as a matter of fact, especially true in China. The job, age, gender and the cultural background are some of the main factors that influence whether the person will be staying within the bubble or not. I spoke to Catherine Dixon, an expat trailing spouse who moved to Nanjing with her husband and two young children.

“We lived in a local community for our first year in Nanjing”, she said. “It was awful. The neighbours were constantly pestering me about wearing too few or too many layers of clothing. The Chinese seem to go by an almanac to decide what clothes to wear. I just check the weather forecast. And they asked all kinds of inappropriate questions, like how much I weigh, or how much money my husband earns.” Dixon and her family relocated to another compound in their second year and that made a difference in her quality of life. “At last, I could go outside without being stared and pointed at. I could understand what my neighbours were talking about. My kids could play with friends. I would never go back outside the bubble, not for all the rice in China!”

Dixon’s story does highlight some of the cultural issues that lead people to associate with others who mirror their social mores and values. This also appears to change throughout the age spectrum. To use a stereotypical example, the younger generations interact more effectively with the locals by socialising through clubbing and karaoke. The same cannot be said for the older generation. They may not be as open and as easily adaptable as the youth, on both sides of the bubble.

However, this all boils down to whether one is interested in the local culture and how keen they are to be a part of the culture. Chinese people are usually curious and inquisitive about expats and their lifestyles back in their home country. Nevertheless, it is also difficult for some Chinese people who want to get connected with the outside world or work comfortably working with the outside world. These are the ones who chat to foreigners on the metro and stop to have their picture taken on the old streets of Confucius Temple. These are the ones who have foreign friends and partners, who listen to foreign music and enjoy sampling exciting, new things.

Expats living in big cities tend to live in the bubble because large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have such large expat populations that lots of restaurants, bars and other expat-friendly facilities cater to them. Apart from the MacDonalds and KFCs that line the streets of Nanjing, there are many fine speciality restaurants ready to serve a reasonable approximation of the same dish cooked in its own country. This does not happen in the smaller cities and villages and thus the expats living there are better off with the locals as there are not enough expats to create the bubble. They also have lots of opportunities to interact with the local community in their everyday life activities, such as buying groceries at a store, using the local transport system, eating food at restaurants etc.

This may seem like the best way to promote interaction, but a forced intermingling can actually have the opposite effect, and cause stress and anxiety in the expat who has no bubble within which to release the stresses and confusions that have been festering since the moment they left the house that morning.

Richard and Dina Shwartz, a middle aged teaching couple, lived in Fuzhou in the South of China for 2 years before relocating to Nanjing. The expat community there was minuscule, and Dina commented, “Some days, even getting a carton of milk was a chore. I would have to buy it all up whenever it was in stock. You could never rely on the store carrying the things you needed. And there was no one there to support you if you had a problem. It was a bit lonely”. When asked if she would prefer to stay in Nanjing or return to the expat vacuum of Fuzhou, her mind was already made up. “Nanjing. It is better to have support, always.”

It could therefore be deduced that what people are looking for inside the bubble is not protection from the host world, but a buffer zone, a place where they can acclimatise to the new culture and prepare mentally and spiritually for surviving a host culture that seems to be so very different from the rest of the world. Inside the bubble is not a cornucopia of homely comforts, but an acceptance of the status quo, and a ready supply of advice to help out struggling expats trying to adapt to Chinese culture and all of the accompanying misunderstanding and misconstrued meaning. While it is certainly not advisable to decorate your bubble and live in there forever, it is no bad thing to have a safety net for when being a lone wanderer is just too hard to handle.